I spent the weekend at the Islamic Society of North America’s national convention, this year held in Washington, D.C, where I volunteered at the American Muslims for Palestine booth and tried my hardest to sell little handmade souvenirs. It was both a fun experience and a sad one—fun because I discovered that I do not belong in a bazaar setting, and sad because, well, the Palestinian cause felt overwhelmingly neglected and misunderstood.
I know that this kind of convention isn’t the most ideal place to gauge the general public’s interest in Palestine but I do believe that, for the segment of the American public it does attract, it’s a great opportunity to share and discuss points of relation to the cause. For Muslims worldwide, Jerusalem is not only the occupied capital of Palestine but it is also the site of the third holiest mosque.
The remainder of this post will include reflections on quotes from some of the conference attendees I met during my time at the booth.
“It’s still not over? I thought Palestine and Israel became peaceful.” — High school student
It’d only take a quick glance at Google News or any other general news site to learn that no, the occupation isn’t over yet. Let there be no illusion about it: there is no peace and there won’t be any—and justifiably so—until all human rights are restored and protected and until Israel abides by international law and takes down the apartheid regime it has pitted against the Palestinian people.
“I’m with the Palestinians but I really hate that they think everything is about them.” — College student
I remember wishing he would’ve articulated that better. He revealed that he had only recently begun to learn about Palestine and its history mostly because, he sheepishly admitted, a classmate he had once eyed for marriage was Palestinian. So what prompted his comment? Palestinians, he said, choose to be too unrelatable and self-interested. The more I dwell on his comments, the more I realize how harsh they are. Yes, there’s a general exclusivity among certain Palestinians but that is to be found in any movement really. I’d even argue that it has little to do with selfishness and much more to do with an unpreparedness to build bridges with allied movements. Of course, this is still a problem and it’s one that needs to be addressed internally and reversed externally. But these connections are a two-way thing and it is important that both sides tackle the perceived exclusivity, not just complain about it at a convention that barely addresses Palestine at all. (Only one of the more than one hundred sessions offered at ISNA this year touched on Palestine—briefly too, because the session was mostly about foreign policy as it relates to the Middle East as a whole.)
“So who’s occupying Palestine?” — Young boy
I was more disappointed in this than in anything else. A boy, maybe nine or ten years old, took a pin I offered him and asked who was occupying Palestine. It wasn’t an “ah, oh yeah, I remember that!” kind of moment. He had an “oh, for real?” look on his face. This is a Muslim boy who doesn’t know what is happening in what is considered Islam’s third holiest site.
“I wrote eighty percent of Obama’s speech that he delivered in Cairo.” — Grown man
I really don’t know what to say to this one. A man came to the booth and told us he had written a letter to President Obama just after his election. That same letter, the man said, was used without his consent as the backbone of the speech Obama delivered in Cairo in 2009. The man said a lot of these kinds of things. He also said we won’t get anywhere as Palestinians unless we visit his website.
“How exactly is any of this supposed to change anything?” — Various passerby
I heard this at least a dozen times throughout my three-day stay. “This” refers to the educational materials I was handing out: statistics on home demolitions, information on Palestine’s restricted education system, details concerning U.S. aid to Israel, etc. “This” also refers to the fair trade products imported directly from Palestine: the olive oil from the Nabali tree, the hand-rolled organic maftoul, the organic za’tar, etc. Frankly, “this” refers to anything, and this is what makes the entire thing a cop-out statement. Without education, how will we be able to challenge the status quo? Without promoting the homegrown products of over 1,700 of Palestine’s many farmers, how else can we help keep Palestine’s economy afloat as a foreign occupier pushes it down? Without raising awareness, where would Palestine be ten years from now? Or even just one year from now?
Progress must begin in our own communities first.